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It’s That Simple: The First Cause and Occam’s Razor

God image

One objection to First Cause arguments is that they make superfluous attributions: surely in any steady hand Occam’s razor would deliver a much more modest looking First Cause than God. In my last post, I argued that this objection is fallacious in as much as it begs the question against Classical Theism, for which the First Cause and its attributions are indivisible (and thus hardly capable of being whittled by Occam).

But, this doesn’t show that there is a First Cause, or that Classical Theism is right about its simplicity. Still less does it show that its attributes include “intellect”, “will”, or “goodness”. I’m going to try and make up for much of this deficit in this post, hoping my point about the fallacious nature of these Occam-style objections has in some measure cleared the runway.

I believe it can be demonstrated that there is a First Cause and that Classical Theism is right about its simplicity in one fell swoop. While this argument will not in and of itself show that the First Cause’s attributes include “intellect”, “will”, or “goodness”, and thus that it is God, it will show that the First Cause is supernatural, or non-natural at least.

Allow me to begin by asking you to consider an average human being. I think we will all agree that it has body parts. But, this is just a realization of its potential to have body parts. If it did not have this potential, if it were literally incapable of having body parts, then it simply would not exist (lacking all the essential organs and such).

Let’s now abstract from this or that human being’s potential to have body parts, and consider the potential by itself. Obviously, the potential to have body parts is general enough that non-human animals have it as well.

This process of abstracting the particulars away could continue on until we arrive at the most general potential included in a human’s potential to have body parts. Thus, we might say the next particular to be abstracted is the having of any specific kinds of parts. In turn, the potential to have parts is just the potential to be composed, from which we may abstract the potential for there to be composition. What saves this from being an exercise in the mundane is that last item. What a peculiar thing, this potential for there to be composition.

Potentials don’t just float around: things have potentials. But, in what sense could something have the potential for there to be composition?

We can divide all potentials into two mutually exclusive categories: active and passive. Active potentials are powers to cause whereas passive potentials are just capacities to undergo change. Thus, my potential to eat lunch is active, while my potential to become older is passive.

If the potential for there to be composition were passive, there would need to be something that could undergo a change that would result in there being composition. But, if there were something capable of undergoing this change, something that genuinely had this potential, then there would already be composition! As such, the potential for there to be composition cannot be passive.

But, if it were active, then something would have the power to cause there to be composition. Since cause logically precedes effect and composition would be one of its effects, this cause could not be composed in anyway whatsoever. Given that this potential has to either be active or passive, and that it cannot be passive, we are forced to deduce that it is active, and therefore that there is a perfectly simple cause of composition.

We may formalize the foregoing reasoning as follows:

1. Every potential is either active or passive.
2. If the potential for there to be composition is active, then there is a perfectly simple cause of composition.
3. The potential for there to be composition is not passive.
4. Therefore, the potential for there to be composition is active. [(1), (3) Disj.]
5. Therefore, there is a perfectly simple cause of composition. [(2), (4) M.P.]

This is a pretty straightforward argument for a First Cause. There could not be more than one perfectly simple being since they would lack any distinguishing features by which to be differentiated.1 And since everything other than this perfectly simple cause is composed of parts, and it causes there to be composition, it sustains all things in existence by holding them together. It doesn’t matter whether the chain of composed beings regresses infinitely into the past, or loops back in on itself: the causation of this perfectly simple being is not ‘first’ in a temporal sense. Rather, its primacy lies within its fundamentality, its causation serving as the pulse of life underlying the existence of everything.

Still, why think it’s super or non-natural? The answer to this lies in the apophatic method: considering what forms of composition there are so as to deny them of the First Cause.

Fortunately, one sort of composition will suffice: that of matter and form. In every change something becomes otherwise than it was before. That is, something persists through the loss and gain of characteristics. Call these characteristics (such as redness, squareness, hunger, or location, etc. etc.) 'forms'. If forms are what are gained and lost through change, what is it that gains or loses them? Call the substratum in which forms are gained or lost ‘matter’. We can distinguish between different kinds of matter based on the forms that it 'substrates'. For example, we might designate the substratum of sensible form as 'physical' matter.

By virtue of its simplicity, the First Cause could not have matter, physical, quantum or any other partition thereof. It occupies no space, persists through no time, and lacks any and all pictorially identifiable features. No laws of nature govern its behavior; it is quite literally unlike anything in nature.

Granted, this does not spell ‘theism’. But, it’s eerily close and at complete odds with Naturalism in any case. The missing ingredients here have in no short supply been given elsewhere; however, perhaps that is a matter best left for another time.
 
 
(Image credit: Gawker)

Notes:

  1. We could hardly say one has these features or this essence, and the other has those features or that essence. And if their essences just were their existences, they’d be the same thing.
Steven Dillon

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Steven Dillon is a nature loving hippy who enthusiastically supports the Philosophy of Religion, and the importance of good-willed dialogue between theists and atheists.

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  • Fr.Sean

    That was a very thought provoking and logical deduction on the first cause. I was thinking when you were talking about active and passive potentials. From a Catholic (i know you're not Catholic or Christian) perspective, we are called to grow and to change. we have the potential to change, but our efforts often seem fruitless. Thus, through an active potential (God) we do change through prayer, thus we seek a source outside of ourselves to activate the passive potential.

    • Doug Shaver

      From a Catholic (i know you're not Catholic or Christian) perspective, we are called to grow and to change. we have the potential to change, but our efforts often seem fruitless.

      From a naturalist perspective, we all do grow and change, whether we want to or not and quite regardless of whether we accept the authority of anyone who tells us we must grow and change.

      What is often fruitless is our efforts to change in certain ways that we might wish to change.

      • Mike

        Like from male to female as some trans gender advocates claim!

      • Fr.Sean

        Hi Doug,

        whether we accept the authority of anyone who tells us we must grow and change.

        That might be jumping ahead just a little. Our conscience in a sense conveys to us a need to change. For example, if i'm addicted to alcohol, i might feel my conscience is encouraging me to deal with my addiction. Thus i need a source outside of myself (like how AA encourages their members to seek strength from their higher power). In that sense it's a philosophical idea with theological overtones. Now accepting the authority of someone who "tells us we must grow and change" first entails faith. if at some point you conclude that you believe God exists and the catholic church conveys truth about that God then you may wish to ponder on how reliable that authority is and why they would encourage you to change in such and such a way. but then one always needs to start from the perspective of God's unconditional love. The strength to change is always rooted in God's unconditional love and not "fear" of God.

        • Doug Shaver

          That might be jumping ahead just a little. Our conscience in a sense conveys to us a need to change.

          I did not construe your statement about change as limited to change in our moral behavior. In my observation, people in general do, in that respect, change for the better over time. You may stick the label "conscience" on our sense that we need to do this. To me, it's just an instance of most people's willingness to learn from their mistakes.

          For example, if i'm addicted to alcohol, i might feel my conscience is encouraging me to deal with my addiction.

          Yeah, you might, a I'm sure a lot of people do. But I was addicted to alcohol for many years, and I never felt guilty about it. I just felt stupid.

          Thus i need a source outside of myself (like how AA encourages their members to seek strength from their higher power). In that sense it's a philosophical idea with theological overtones.

          The consequences of my stupidity were painful, and when the pain became unbearable, I did decide to get some help from AA. I stayed with them for a few years, and I said all the right things so that I could feel like I belonged there in the meetings. But I could never be entirely sincere when uttering all those things about the Higher Power. When I couldn't stand the feeling of hypocrisy any longer, I quit the meetings. That was about 15 years ago, and I'm still sober, without any help from AA's theology.

          Now accepting the authority of someone who "tells us we must grow and change" first entails faith.

          I suppose it takes a kind of faith to accept any authority on any matter. I'm not sure it's the same thing Christians are talking about when they talk about having faith in God.

          The strength to change is always rooted in God's unconditional love

          You say so.

  • Patrick

    That's an interesting perspective

  • Bob

    Just a quick question regarding potential.

    In order for some x to exist from this moment to the next moment, must that x have the potential to do so?

    • Steven Dillon

      Yes, I believe so: if it is persisting from this moment to the next, then it must have the potential to become otherwise than it is (at least by virtue of aging).

      Interestingly, since a perfectly simple being can't have this potential, it couldn't exist over spans of time (implying an eternal present).

      • Bob

        Yes it could imply that, or maybe it could just imply that such a perfectly simple being cannot possibly exist.

        So I suppose that this particular argument doesn't really get us too far.

        • Steven Dillon

          It would only be reasonable for us to reject this argument as sound on account of what it implies if its premises could be false. But, I don't see how any of its premises could be false.

          • Bob

            1. Every potential is either active or passive.

            You categorized potential as either active or passive - okay.

            2. If the potential for there to be composition is active, then there is a perfectly simple cause of composition.

            Quarks, for instance, are potentially quite a number of things. their potential for such composition seems to fit into your passive category and quarks are quite simple, (as in potentially not being composed of any other parts), to boot.

            So it seems that a potential for composition can be passive, per your stated categories.

            3. The potential for there to be composition is not passive.

            If 2 is arguably inconclusive, then of course, so is 3 and the rest of the argument no longer necessarily follows.

          • Steven Dillon

            There's a crucial difference between the potential for there to be composition at all, and the potential for there to be composition in this or that substance. While the argument has the former in mind, your objection concerns the latter.

            The reason the potential for there to be composition at all could not be passive is that this would require the potential to be realized prior to its realization. That is, the potential for there to be composition at all could only be passive if it were a capacity something *had* (making it a part). But, if something really had this capacity, then it would be composed and the potential would already be realized.

          • Bob

            You are using the word potential here in a very strange way; as an actual part of something like an arm or a leg.

          • Michael Murray
          • Steven Dillon

            Aristotelians have traditionally divided existence into two kinds: actual and potential. Although the idea that potentiality 'exists' strikes non-Aristotelians as strange (especially in Frege's wake), it's not posited lightly.

            Non-existent capacities and powers can't explain anything. If things didn't *really* have potentials, then nothing would *really* be capable of change, and all change would (incoherently) be illusory.

          • Bob

            I think we are in a map v. territory situation here.

          • Michael Murray

            Do you any reason to think all this philosophical modelling actual fits the real world. You say thinks like "prior to" and yet time is a really awkward notion in the real world. In those parts of the universe where relativity holds reasonably well we know that whether event A occurs before or after event B can depend on the velocity of the observer. But it is probably worse than that. Quantum mechanics at very short distances, such as the very early universe (Planck Epoch), probably disrupts time and space completely. As a consequence "prior to" is a notion that is unlikely to apply to the real world.

            It seems to me you have in your mind a model of the world and in that model you think you have deduced that there must be a first cause. But does the model apply to the world we live in ?

          • Bob

            Precisely.

          • Steven Dillon

            Comments like these evince a non-classical understanding of what metaphysicians are talking about. Classical metaphysicians (like neo-Platonists and Aristotelians) are not talking about which model best maps the world -- or anything like that. Instead, they're talking about what must be true no matter what model turns out to best map the world (or whatever).

            As such, classical metaphysicians do not advance evidence for their positions since it is of the nature of such things that they privilege certain models (via background knowledge). Instead, the classical metaphysician appeals to incorrigible truths, and attempts strict deductions.

          • Michael Murray

            Instead, the classical metaphysician appeals to incorrigible truths, and attempts strict deductions.

            But they don't. That's the issue. They use concepts like causality, potentiality, prior to etc based on a particular experience of reality. The view of reality we evolved in. Speeds much slower than the speed of light and distances much larger than the Planck distance.

            As a result they aren't dealing in incorrigible truths and neither, from what I've seen here, are their deductions that strict or though I am sure they try. If you want incorrigible truths and strict deductions you should join the pure mathematicians. We know how to do both of these :-) We also know the difference between the maps and the territory. We spend all our lives making maps that don't have territories.

          • Bob

            "We spend all our lives making maps that don't have territories."

            I suppose you are not the only ones.

          • Ignatius Reilly

            If you want incorrigible truths and strict deductions you should join the pure mathematicians. We know how to do both of these :-)

            I take it you are a mathematician?

          • Michael Murray

            Yes. The claims around here of logic and rigour drive me mad but then mathematicians are a bit obsessive about these things. :-)

          • Ignatius Reilly

            They use concepts like causality, potentiality, prior to etc based on a particular experience of reality. The view of reality we evolved in.

            I'm not really sure their deductions hold in the reality we evolved in. The definitions of terms seem to shift and are imprecise.

          • Steven Dillon

            While we all grant that our concepts are derived from experiences, you seem to think this 'contaminates' our concepts, irrevocably tying them to some model of reality or other. I see at least two problems with this sort of claim:

            1. It begs the question against classical metaphysics. Granted, we're having a pretty informal back and forth. But, to just say that our concepts of potentiality, causality and so forth are corrigible is to simply assert that classical metaphysics is unsound, which of course is no reason for a classical metaphysician to change her mind.

            2. It's self-defeating. If our experience based concepts are relative to some model of reality or other, then the concept that our experience based concepts are relative is itself relative. But, then it needn't hold in some model of reality, meaning in some model of reality, our experience based concepts are not relative to any particular model, which is just to contradict the original supposition.

          • Michael Murray

            While we all grant that our concepts are derived from experiences, you seem to think this 'contaminates' our concepts,

            No my claim is that our experiences are limited by our knowledge of the world around us.

            But, to just say that our concepts of potentiality, causality and so forth are corrigible is to simply assert that classical metaphysics is unsound, which of course is no reason for a classical metaphysician to change her mind.

            What should worry the classical metaphysician isn't my claims but the fact that when we consider the universe beyond our daily experience these notions seem to break down. That's not an assertion by me that's just what physics tells us. So she isn't working with incorrigible ideas she is just working in some model of a newtonian, non-quantum world. It's an approximation to reality. Not a basis for grand conclusions about who or what created the whole of reality.

          • Steven Dillon

            Like I said, the classical metaphysician is looking at what must be true of things like causation regardless of which model of reality turns out to be correct. Since the sciences take certain models of reality for granted, they're simply incapable of undermining metaphysical conclusions: true metaphysical conclusions would hold *regardless* of which model of reality is correct, and thus what science finds or fails to. The only way to defeat metaphysical beliefs is by doing metaphysics.

          • Michael Murray

            true metaphysical conclusions would hold *regardless* of which model of reality is correct, and thus what science finds or fails to.

            OK but then the implication of that is I should ignore any so-called metaphysical arguments that make reference to things like time and space which we know are just approximations to what might really be going on in a quantum theory because they can't be real metaphysics.

            My concern is that if you want to talk about things in enormous generality that generality often causes you to have not very much to say. The larger the set of things you want to say true things about the smaller the set of things you can say which are true.

          • Steven Dillon

            Well, that depends on whether there's anything true of space or time regardless of what their best models say about them.

            Funnily enough, classical metaphysicians have often remarked on the generality of metaphysics. But, what must be true of things has important, guiding implications for our worldview and science.

            As an aside, Moliere's joke about opium causing sleep because of its dormative power is intended to poke fun at the idea of 'powers' that classical metaphysicians have posited.

            Apparently, they're explanatory useless tautologies. But, as Ed Feser points out in Scholastic Metaphysics: A Contemporary Introduction, "opium causes sleep because it has a power to cause sleep" is not a tautology ('causes sleep' =/= 'power to cause sleep'), and in any case should be considered as trivially true if it were, instead of false as it is. Opium's sleep-inducing power may be minimally explanatory, but it tells us it's not just some big coincidence that opium induces sleep :P

  • Implicitly this post
    acknowledges that act explains itself, whereas potency does not. Further, every
    entity within our experience is a composite and as a composite includes
    potency. Therefore, to explain the existence of the entities within our
    experience, there must exist an entity beyond our experience that is not a composite, but is pure act
    and as such is simple. Unfortunately, using the terms, passive and active, this
    post posits the self-contradiction that within potency, potency and act are
    mutually exclusive.

  • Ignatius Reilly

    We can divide all potentials into two mutually exclusive categories: active and passive. Active potentials are powers to cause whereas passive potentials are just capacities to undergo change. Thus, my potential to eat lunch is active, while my potential to become older is passive.

    I am not sure that these are mutually exclusive, although I am unclear as to the exact definition of active and passive potentials. It seems that death is both active and passive, as one could grow old and die, which would make death a passive potential, or one could commit suicide and then death would be an active potential.

    • Steven Dillon

      Thomist authors have been careful to distinguish 'potentiality' from what most philosophers call 'possibility' nowadays (in its various stripes). But, what they have in common is a sort of intentionality, whereby every potential is just a potential of x's to. To what? Exactly!

      The 'potential to' signals an incomplete expression. Where's the rest of the infinitive? Whatever it is, it will either be in the active or passive voice. That is to say, every potential is to [insert active or passive verb]. This tells us that every potential is either to do something (active ) or to have something done (passive).

      • Ignatius Reilly

        Is composition passive at times?
        A Zygote has potential to be composed into an adult. It also has potential to spontaneously abort, and it has potential to be composed into two humans.

        • Mike

          You right now have the potential to die too, does that mean we can off you?

          • Ignatius Reilly

            That's an ethical consideration. I am not making any ethical claims. Between 50-80% of human zygotes spontaneously abort, for natural reasons.

            I am trying to understand how composition is an active potential. The original post discussed how a human is composed of body parts - do not see how human composition is exclusively active.

          • Mike

            So why would it be wrong to stop your life now? if i know it'll end in the next say 80 years why is it wrong to do it now?

          • Ignatius Reilly

            I'm confused as to how this is relevant. The original post claimed that composition is an active potential. I gave an example that seems to indicate that composition is a passive potential. Either my example stands and the argument is invalid, or I am misunderstanding the terms.

            In answer to your question, I would submit that we intuitively know it is wrong and there are also utilitarian reasons as to why it would be wrong.

          • Mike

            What if my intuition says it's not wrong to end the life of new born babies? How can my intuition be wrong but your's not? I don't understand what distinction you are trying to outline.

          • Ignatius Reilly

            Similar to aesthetics. We may disagree about the beauty of Shakespeare, but that does not mean neither one of us is correct.

          • Mike

            Right so i'll just do what my "intuition" tells me and you do what yours tells you...and if mine for example says new borns can be "released" from life by their mothers that's my prerogative, correct?

          • Ignatius Reilly

            An intuitionist would posit that your intuition is defective. It would be like being color blind. I am not really an intuitionist, but I do think that most moral decisions are made on intuition.

            I am not really sure what ethical theory I ascribe to, but I think that intuition and utility are both important concepts.

          • Mike

            Ok so i'll just follow my truth and you follow yours?

          • Michael Murray

            Ok so i'll just follow my truth and you follow yours?

            Could be a little awkward with you guys living in the same universe and so sharing the same reality.

          • Mike

            Awkward is an artificial construct though no?

          • Ignatius Reilly

            I would say that we should both follow the truth as we individually understand it. This does not mean that either one of us has the truth, but it seems better to follow the truth that you have reasoned for yourself, than the truth of religious authorities.

          • Mike

            But those religious authorities are just following their truth too just like the 2 of us? are you saying your truth is better than theirs? That seems like an illogical conclusion.

          • Ignatius Reilly

            They have poor method.
            My point is that one should follow the truth as they understand it, instead of how someone else understands it.

          • Mike

            Oh i see so hundreds of well educated ppl over thousands of years are MORE prone to errors than 1 person with only about 50 years max of studying alongside regular day to day duties? that is a puzzling claim.

            My truth tells me that we should wipe out half the world's population in order to "Save" it...you follow your truth i'll follow mine...sound reasonable based on your assumptions?

          • Ignatius Reilly

            Oh i see so hundreds of well educated ppl over thousands of years are MORE prone to errors than 1 person with only about 50 years max of studying alongside regular day to day duties? that is a puzzling claim

            Considering that the hundreds of people in question all have diverging opinions, how are we supposed to decide which philosophy we subscribe to? Even all Catholics don't believe the same thing, some even have different systems of ethics.

            My truth tells me that we should wipe out half the world's population in order to "Save" it...you follow your truth i'll follow mine...sound reasonable based on your assumptions?

            But you don't think that is true. The only way a large group of people would subscribe to such a claim, is if they accepted authoritarian claims, which can happen wherever religion is concerned.

          • Mike

            pol pot, stalin,lenin, hitler, mao, white brits who enslaved half the world's brown ppl in india and africa, all of these ppl had the same idea: there is no ultimate truth which is just a fairy tale there is only my truth and yours so you do as you like and i'll do as i like.

          • Ignatius Reilly

            That is a wild assertion. In many cases, they believed they had the ultimate truth, not that everyone does as they like. History and historical figures are much more complicated then you are trying to make it out to be.

          • Mike

            all i am saying is that moral relativims ie. oh it's just their culture it's ok, but for them not for me, is wrong.

        • Steven Dillon

          The potential for there to be composition at all is never passive, but the potential for there to be composition in this or that substance could be (I think). The potentials you describe are of the latter sort.

          • Ignatius Reilly

            The potential for there to be composition at all is never passive

            Do you have an example of this type of composition?

  • Doug Shaver

    I believe it can be demonstrated that there is a First Cause

    I have no idea whether it can be, but I don't believe it has been.

    While this argument will not in and of itself show that the First Cause’s attributes include “intellect”, “will”, or “goodness”, and thus that it is God, it will show that the First Cause is supernatural, or non-natural at least.

    We shall see.

    Allow me to begin by asking you to consider an average human being. I think we will all agree that it has body parts.

    If this is supposed to entail the possibility that some non-average humans might lack body parts, then I do not agree.

    But, this is just a realization of its potential to have body parts. If it did not have this potential, if it were literally incapable of having body parts, then it simply would not exist (lacking all the essential organs and such).

    I don't accept this apparent equivalence between potential and actuality. If all humans, without exception, have body parts, then whatever has no body parts is not a human. If you wish to affirm that some humans lack body parts, you may do so. I will disagree, but at least we will have clearly identified a fundamental issue on which we disagree.

    That noted, I will stipulate for this discussion: Something may be human if it lacks body parts, provided it has the potential for having body parts. But it does not follow that if it lacks that potential, it fails to exist. Otherwise, you have just proved that nothing exists except humans.

    Let’s now abstract from this or that human being’s potential to have body parts, and consider the potential by itself. Obviously, the potential to have body parts is general enough that non-human animals have it as well.

    The specificity required depends on context. If I must distinguish between humans and other animals, I can characterize the body parts in whatever detail is necessary to make that distinction.

    In turn, the potential to have parts is just the potential to be composed, from which we may abstract the potential for there to be composition.

    I see no relevant difference between being composed and having parts. We're just using different words to identify the same referent.

    What a peculiar thing, this potential for there to be composition.

    I see no peculiarity in either the potential or the actuality. If nothing had parts, then the universe would comprise only one thing, and in that event we would not exist. Also in that event, it seems to me that nothing composite could ever come into existence. A potential for composition cannot exist solely in that which is not itself composite. Differentiation needs a cause external to that which is differentiated.

    Potentials don’t just float around: things have potentials.

    That is the linguistic convention, yes. Whatever we mean by a potential, it has no existence apart from the things that we decide to say have it.

    But, in what sense could something have the potential for there to be composition?

    I can see no sense in saying, of any X, "X has the potential for there to be composition." We can sensibly say only, for some noncomposite X, "X has the potential to become composite."

    We can divide all potentials into two mutually exclusive categories: active and passive. Active potentials are powers to cause whereas passive potentials are just capacities to undergo change.

    OK, we can do that.

    If the potential for there to be composition were passive, there would need to be something that could undergo a change that would result in there being composition. But, if there were something capable of undergoing this change, something that genuinely had this potential, then there would already be composition! As such, the potential for there to be composition cannot be passive.

    I have presented my objection to the phrase "potential for there to be composition." But I think I might have already made the point you're trying to make here, when I said that a universe with no composite thing could never become a universe with any composite thing.

    This is a pretty straightforward argument for a First Cause.

    I'd say it's an argument for the universe's never having been noncomposite.

    There could not be more than one perfectly simple being since they would lack any distinguishing features by which to be differentiated.

    I see no relevance between this argument and the number of perfectly simple entities that could exist (regardless of whether we call it, or any of them, a "being").

    And since everything other than this perfectly simple cause is composed of parts, and it causes there to be composition, it sustains all things in existence by holding them together.

    I think you've assumed your conclusion here.

    Still, why think it’s super or non-natural? The answer to this lies in the apophatic method: considering what forms of composition there are so as to deny them of the First Cause.

    I have attempted to demonstrate why I think you have failed to demonstrate the necessary existence of a first cause.

    In every change something becomes otherwise than it was before.

    That is what we mean when we talk about change. You are, in effect, merely defining the word change.

    By virtue of its simplicity, the First Cause could not have matter, physical, quantum or any other partition thereof. It occupies no space, persists through no time, and lacks any and all pictorially identifiable features. No laws of nature govern its behavior; it is quite literally unlike anything in nature.

    I'm a naturalist. I believe nature is all there is, and you have not given me any reason yet to believe otherwise.

    Granted, this does not spell ‘theism’.

    It doesn't even spell first cause, so far as I can tell.

    • Mike

      How do you know that the "supernatural" isn't part of "nature"?

      • Doug Shaver

        If it were, what would be the difference between the natural and the supernatural? People call it the supernatural for a reason, don't they?

        • Mike

          yes but maybe it's just a part of nature maybe it's random and not well understood but still natural no?

          • Doug Shaver

            If it's natural, it's not supernatural. I see point in referring to any natural thing as supernatural just because it's random or because we don't understand it very well.

          • Mike

            right so maybe in "nature" there are irregularities like say a resurrection of a 1st century carpenter but still are nevertheless not supernatural just not very well understood but with time or knowledge or whatever these kinds of events will become clearer to us.

  • Jane

    I just learned about this site and was excited to find a site where religious theology and philosophy (including the theology of atheism and agnosticism) is invited and engages in respectful dialogue. Will definitely check back in. My thanks to those of you who are already sharing here with the greatest charity toward those who are on "the other side" of the "argument." You encourage this fellow spiritual traveler.

  • niknac

    The question of whether God exists or not can never be answered. So it's navel gazing. I know what I would like God to be like if he does exist and how he would like me to be. I try and be like that to the exert that I am able. I think this is not enough for many people but enough for me. It has the virtue of being relatively simple and I hope I do as well.

    • Mike

      i agree; as pascal said there is just enough evidence/reasons to believe and to not believe, the choice is ultimately yours. The very simple fact that there is anything at all points towards something more fundamental and the fact of a beg. to universe simply helps that point.

      • Ignatius Reilly

        The very simple fact that there is anything at all points towards something more fundamental

        Why is nothing more fundamental than something?

        • Mike

          Bc everything that you know of has a beginning.

          • Ignatius Reilly

            Nothing is outside of our experience. It is pure conjecture that nothing actually exists. Even in a vacuum there is a quantum field.

          • Mike

            Exactly.

          • Ignatius Reilly

            So you agree that there isn't anything more fundamental then the universe?

          • Mike

            Yes, except that from which the universe came during the big bang.

          • Ignatius Reilly

            There is not before the universe. Space and time are intertwined.

          • Mike

            Right, in our terms time space began when the universe was created, a metaphysical conclusion.

          • Michael Murray

            Right, in our terms time space began when the universe was created, a metaphysical conclusion.

            No. Neither of the words "began" or "created" make much sense here. We don't know the universe was created and we don't even know if it started. What we know is that currently space is expanding. We assume that if we go backwards in time then it contracts and everything becomes closer together. We have evidence for this. If we go back far enough we get to a time called the Planck Epoch when the universe is so small quantum effects dominate gravity. If we go back further the models predict a time zero when everything is a point the so-called singularity. But that is really just a singularity in the model. In reality once you get back to the Planck Epoch we don't know what happens because we don't have a theory of quantum gravity. Metaphysics is not a substitute for such a theory. It is possible that space and time are meaningless concepts which only make sense in an approximation where we can assume general relativity is free of quantum effects.

            Usually at this point people try to hit me with the BGV theorem so let me fend that off with a comment from Vilenkin from WLC's web page

            . . . of course there is no such thing as absolute certainty in science, especially in matters like the creation of the universe. Note for example that the BGV theorem uses a classical picture of spacetime. In the regime where gravity becomes essentially quantum, we may not even know the right questions to ask.

            Read more: http://www.reasonablefaith.org/honesty-transparency-full-disclosure-and-bgv-theorem#ixzz3Dk4Sq7yN

          • Mike

            It makes immensely more sense is more reasonable it more human i dare say to in the absence of verifiable evidence to the contrary assume in good faith allowing for error that something or someone created the universe afterall we know for a fact that the universe is not steady as was once thought but is about 14 billion years old. The default position is that some intelligence some force created the universe bc it is most open minded and most reasonable IMHO.

          • Ignatius Reilly

            If the universe is designed, then we have good reason to think that the designer was a student god, who got a C+ on this particular project.

            The problem is that you have to make the jump from a designer/first cause to the Christian God. Once that jump is made, we end up with a lot of inconsistencies.

          • Mike

            Can you design math, logic, ethics, the human brain, art, etc. etc.? Again i am puzzled by your logic wherein you seem to leap from the grandeur of the universe to stupidity...very confusing.

          • Ignatius Reilly

            Can you design math, logic, ethics, the human brain, art, etc. etc.?

            Mathematics and logic could be constructed or they could just exist without need of a design.
            Same with ethics.
            The human brain came about through a natural process. However, if I was to design a human brain (as a god), I could have done a much better job. It is rather frail, its powers of deduction are not that impressive, and a stroke could render much of it inoperable. This is a good example of poor design.

          • Mike

            sorry but i don't think you appreciate the existence of math and logic fully enough...see this http://www.firstthings.com/article/2010/10/fearful-symmetries

            especially the part about the maths that were created that they thought had no application but turned out to be almost "destined" for another set of problems; this can not exist with intelligence putting that potential into the universe before hand.

          • Michael Murray

            What by the way does "more reasonable it more human i dare say" mean ? You seem to have mistyped.

            The default position is that some intelligence some force created the universe bc it is most open minded and most reasonable IMHO.

            No that was the default position back when we thought the sun was dragged along by a winged chariot. Cosmology has moved on from that. The default position is now "we don't know" when we don't know.

          • Mike

            more reasonable it's more humane i dare say; the default position should be theism and i predict that with the science of information of non-physical "things" like information that that position will become standard.

          • Mike
          • Michael Murray

            A better elucidation of what ? What you said or what I said ? It certainly seems like a better elucidation of what I said.

  • Estevao Bel

    Just because something is "simpler" doesn't mean that it's more coherent or plausible. Naturalism is incoherent and leads to many absurdities, but I guess it's "simpler", i.e. posits less entities than supernaturalism or non-materialist conceptions of nature. But solipsism is very simply too (maybe that's why Bertrand Russel was a solipsist for a time, although at least he had the good sense not to be a naturalist), just one mind out there, instead of billions. That doesn't mean it's any more coherent or doesn't entail absurdities.

    • Doug Shaver

      Just because something is "simpler" doesn't mean that it's more coherent or plausible.

      I've never known anybody to claim that it does.

      Naturalism is incoherent and leads to many absurdities,

      If you can say it without argument, I can deny it without argument.

  • This is a great article, with an easy to understand argument for God (or, if you are a Spinozist, for the universe). I am curious about one thing. Couldn't there have always been composition? Composition in the things that exist now could have been made active by the composite things before, and so on, ad infinitum. What's the problem with this idea?

    • Steven Dillon

      Thanks a lot Paul!

      In an infinite regression of composed entities, "composition in the things that exist now could have been made active by the composite things before, and so on, ad infinitum." True.

      But, here we're not so much interested in the potential for there to be composition in this or that substance, but rather with the potential for there to be composition simpliciter.

      Once we make this distinction, it no longer seems that composite things before could have made the latter potential active, for it must have already been active if they existed: nothing could explain its existence without presupposing it.

      • Maybe composition doesn't exist by itself. You could talk about composite things, and then when you talk about composition by itself, you are abstracting it from composite things. It doesn't have an existence apart from the things it exists in, and so doesn't have causes by itself. So maybe you can talk about the cause of composite things, but you can't talk about the cause of composition itself.

        This aligns with my intuition about numbers (if I were to accept Aristotle's way of talking about things). I see 2 apples, so I can abstract the number 2 from these apples, and can talk about 2 by itself.

        I don't know what it means to talk about the potential for there to be the number 2. But I do know what it means to talk about the potential for there to be 2 apples.

        • Michael Murray

          Sounds like the dictionary definition of

          Reification (also known as concretism, hypostatization, or the fallacy of misplaced concreteness) is a fallacy of ambiguity, when an abstraction (abstract beliefor hypothetical construct) is treated as if it were a concrete, real event, or physical entity.[1][2] In other words, it is the error of treating as a concrete thing, something which is not concrete, but merely an idea.

          • Yes, that's what I'm trying to say. That's a great word for it.

          • Steven Dillon

            While Aristotelians are famous for rejecting the Platonic doctrine that abstractions are 'concrete' things (and so I'd regard it as fallacious as well), it's pretty much a terribly question begging claim. If Platonism is true, "reification" isn't at all fallacious. lol.

        • Steven Dillon

          Ah, I agree with you. Aristotelians diverge most fundamentally from Platonists by saying there are no 'uninstantiated' forms just floating around out there: forms only exist 'in' or 'with' substances. Same thing with numbers, they're just abstractions from concrete things.

          But, I don't think my argument involves a more Platonic understanding of 'composition'. Per the argument, the potential for there to be composition is just a thing's power to cause there to be composed things. That, or it's the part of something by which it is able to become composed (which seems contradictory).

          • In that case, composed things cause other composed things for ever and ever. Composition itself always exists, uncaused, and it doesn't need a cause, because it's an abstraction from things that do have causes.

            Now, why doesn't this work?

          • Steven Dillon

            Hm, it still doesn't seem like we're talking about the same thing: the potential for anything to be composed is one thing, the potential for this or that thing to be composed is another.

            Composite beings cannot precede the realization of the potential for anything to be composed. In order for that potential to be realized, something non-composite must act.

          • I don't understand. I don't think you need to talk about the beginning of all composite things if there were always composite things, and it seems as though there could have always been composite things.

          • Steven Dillon

            You seem to be thinking of horizontal causation (like dominoes, etc.) whereas I'm thinking of vertical causation (the ceiling holding a chandelier up).

            The potential for this or that thing to be composed is just an instance of a more general potential: the potential for anything to be composed, right?

            If we ask why the potential for this or that thing to be composed is realized, we can just refer to another thing for which this potential is already realized: no problem. We could even do this to infinity without being unable to answer this question.

            But, if we ask why the potential for anything at all to be composed is realized, we can't refer to a composite thing. For then, we're saying this potential was realized prior to its realization.

            So, whether there is an infinite series of composed causers or not, there still needs to be something outside of the chain that realizes that ultimate potential. That's what allows there to be any composed things in the first place, however many there are.

            So, there's two kinds of causation at work here: primary and secondary. The secondary causes -- whether infinite in number or finite -- realize the potential for this or that thing to be composed. The primary cause realizes the potential for anything at all to be composed.

          • Alright, I understand what you're saying now. This is just basically Aristotle's cosmological argument. The universe could have been around forever and this would work.

            Thanks for taking the time to explain.

  • As I read through, I had to double check that the writer was not Anthony Rizzi. These arguments are almost identical to those he presents in his book, "Science Before Science". Wonderfully put and presented.

  • Mike

    Excellent post.

    Whether something that "appears" to be more simple therefore makes it more LIKELY is a question that remains unanswered but here's something to consider when ppl assume based on evidence that higher complexity simply emerges almost as if magically from seemingly lower complexity: what often seems less complex can actually be alot more complex in that it contains within itself the higher complexity that eventually emerges: case in point: symmetry.

    http://www.firstthings.com/article/2010/10/fearful-symmetries

    • Jim (hillclimber)

      Thank you for sharing that firstthings article. It is really excellent.

      I especially like the clarity with which this crucial insight is presented:

      The philosopher Georges Rey has written, for example, that “any ultimate ex-planation of mental phenomena will have to be in non -mental [i.e., sub -mental or material] terms or else it won’t be an explanation of it.” Of course, the logic of this could be turned around. One could just as well say that any ultimate ex-planation of the material world must be in nonmaterial terms.

      • Mike

        This seems an obvious point to me and it did even before i became a more intentional catholic; see also Godels incompleteness theorem and his conviction that some sort of supernatural dimension could be construed from pure math alone.

        We/reality, existence itself is contingent on "Some" thing or person or god or thor or whatever more fundamental otherwise we'd never exist and there'd be nothing instead of something.

        • Jim (hillclimber)

          Although we agree on other points, I would not agree that any ontological conclusions are obvious. The reason the First Cause arguments are not obviously true is because one can reasonably question the mental machinery that we use to arrive at an assessment of obviousness.

          The materialists and naturalists are correct that one can (in principle) use one's scientific understanding of matter to at least partially explain the way(s) humans think about existence, contingency, and God. That "reductionist" perspective is insightful and valid as a perspective.

          To that understanding, I would simply want to add (without subtracting anything) that one can also use one's understanding of existence, contingency, and God to elevate one's understanding of why we perceive structured matter in the first place.

          I see it like a cube that you need to keep turning because you can't see all sides at once.

          • Mike

            I know what you mean but i still think that we have been "wired" to recognize and search out or "See" purpose and teleology in this "holodeck" that we find ourselves on; we're wired for "gods".

            Either the machinery of the universe is the brute fact or the creator of that machinery is a brute fact and i've yet to discover anything not created by some kind of intelligence.

  • Graham Heine

    The OP states "it will show that the First Cause is supernatural, or non-natural at least."

    Causality depends on A. patterns within the universe (laws) and B. arrow of time. Laws of physics don't depend on intuitions about causality, but rather, it's the other way around. But A and B may not exist outside nature; therefore causality principle doesn't apply outside nature.